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Police ramp up for 'Draw Mohammad' protest outside Phoenix mosque

Caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad have been a flashpoint for violence in Europe and the United States

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Arizona police stepped up security on Friday near a mosque for a planned outdoor protest by an anti-Islam group that includes drawing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, weeks after a similar competition in Texas came under attack by two gunmen.

Friday’s event, during evening prayers at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, is being organized by a former member of the Marine Reserve who posted photos of himself on Facebook wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Fuck Islam” on it.

Caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad have been a flashpoint for violence in Europe and the United States in recent months as many Muslims believe it is blasphemous to create pictures of him.

Officials at the mosque could not be reached for immediate comment, but its website features a series of sermons at Friday prayers there last year by an imam condemning extremist Islamist groups like Islamic State, al Qaeda and Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

The Phoenix police department plans to have a presence throughout the neighborhood where the mosque is situated, bringing in staff from other details as needed, said spokesman Sergeant Trent Crump.

“Dealing with this type of activity is a challenge that is facing law enforcement across the country,” he said. “Dealing with groups of protesters and opposing views is not the difficult part. Our goal and the real challenge are trying to anticipate unlawful activities that might occur in conjunction with these events,” Crump said.

Act of retribution

In January, gunmen killed 12 people at the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in anger at the magazine’s cartoons featuring the Prophet.

A similar attack was foiled outside Dallas on May 3 when the two gunmen opened fire outside an exhibit of cartoons of Mohammad. The pair, who had attended the Phoenix mosque targeted in Friday’s event, were shot dead by police without killing anyone.

Organizers of the Phoenix event described it as an act of retribution for the attack in the Dallas suburb of Garland.

“This is in response to the recent attack in Texas where 2 armed terrorists, with ties to ISIS, attempted jihad,” organizers said in a Facebook posting, using a shorthand name for the Islamic State.

U.S. officials investigated claims that the Texas gunmen had ties to ISIS, based in Syria and Iraq, but never established a firm connection.

The main organizer of the protest, Phoenix resident Jon Ritzheimer, said the point of the contest to draw Mohammad was “to expose the true colors of Islam.”

“True Islam is terrorism. Yes, the ones that are out committing these atrocities and stuff, they are following the book as it’s written,” Ritzheimer told CNN.

Ritzheimer was a staff sergeant in the Marine Reserve and was deployed to Iraq twice, in 2005 and 2008, the Marine Corps told Reuters.

Police spokesman Crump said some of the protesters would be pro-gun advocates. Others would be asserting a right to free speech and freedom of religion, he said.

Phoenix’s mayor, Greg Stanton, told CNN he believed Friday’s event was not a good idea. “I wish it wasn’t happening in this location, in my city, but as mayor I can balance my responsibilities to the people of this city,” he said.

Organizers of the rally could not be reached for immediate comment.

The mosque is a former church near the city’s international airport that can hold some 600 worshipers.